Sunday, August 13, 2017

Today's Daily Double Offers A Double Surprise

As has been stated many times in this blog, today's writer — Frank Rich — is distinguished by the sobriquet, "The Butcher," when Rich was known as "the Butcher on Broadway" during his lengthy tenure as the NY Fishwrap's theater critic with emphasis on "critic." Today, The Butcher achieves a new moment in this blog: a double-feature of The Butcher's essays, posted nearly a year apart — August 16, 2016 and August 13, 2017. In the firmer, The Butcher anticipated the result of the 2016 presidential election and in the latter, The Butcher speculates on another presidential resignation. If this is (fair & balanced) magical thinking, so be it.

PS: Look at the Directory below and click on the [bracketed number] to go to that essay; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the top of the page.

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[1] Posted August 16, 2016 — Frank (The Butcher) Rich Predicts An Election Surprise
[2] Today (8/12/17) — Frank (The Butcher) Rich Predicts A Presidential Departure

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What The Donald Shares With The Ronald
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In an election cycle that has brought unending surprises, let it be said that one time-honored tradition has been upheld: the Republican presidential contenders' quadrennial tug-of-war to seize the mantle of Ronald Reagan. John Kasich, gesturing toward the Air Force One on display at the Reagan-library debate, said, "I think I actually flew on this plane with Ronald Reagan when I was a congressman." Rand Paul claimed to have met Reagan as a child; Ben Carson said he switched parties because of Reagan; Chris Christie said he cast his first vote for Reagan; Ted Cruz cheered Reagan for having defeated Soviet Communism and vowed, for nonsensical good measure, to "do the same thing." And then there was Donald Trump, never one to be outdone by the nobodies in any competition. "I helped him," he said of Reagan on NBC last fall. "I knew him. He liked me and I liked him."

The Reagan archives show no indication that the two men had anything more than a receiving-line acquaintanceship; Trump doesn’t appear in the president’s voluminous diaries. But of all the empty boasts that have marked Trump’s successful pursuit of the Republican nomination, his affinity to Reagan may have the most validity and the most pertinence to 2016. To understand how Trump has advanced to where he is now, and why he has been underestimated at almost every step, and why he has a shot at vanquishing Hillary Clinton in November, few road maps are more illuminating than Reagan’s unlikely path to the White House. One is almost tempted to say that Trump has been studying the Reagan playbook — but to do so would be to suggest that he actually might have read a book, another Trumpian claim for which there is scant evidence.

Before the fierce defenders of the Reagan faith collapse into seizures at the bracketing of their hero with the crudest and most vacuous presidential candidate in human memory, let me stipulate that I am not talking about Reagan the president in drawing this parallel, or about Reagan the man. I am talking about Reagan the candidate, the canny politician who, after a dozen years of failed efforts attended by nonstop ridicule, ended up leading the 1980 GOP ticket at the same age Trump is now (69) and who, like his present-day counterpart, was best known to much of the electorate up until then as a B-list show-business personality.

It’s true that Reagan, unlike Trump, did hold public office before seeking the presidency (though he’d been out of government for six years when he won). But Trump would no doubt argue that his executive experience atop the august Trump Organization more than compensates for Reagan’s two terms in Sacramento. (Trump would also argue, courtesy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, that serving as governor of California is merely a bush-league audition for the far greater responsibilities of hosting "Celebrity Apprentice.") It’s also true that Reagan forged a (fairly) consistent ideology to address late-20th-century issues that are no longer extant: the Cold War, a federal government that feasted on a top income-tax bracket of 70 percent, and runaway inflation. Trump has no core conviction beyond gratifying his own bottomless ego.

Remarkably, though, the Reagan model has proved quite adaptable both to Trump and to our different times. Trump’s tenure as an NBC reality-show host is comparable to Reagan’s stint hosting the highly rated but disposable "General Electric Theater" for CBS in the Ed Sullivan era. Trump’s embarrassing turn as a supporting player in a 1990 Bo Derek movie (Ghosts Can’t Do It) is no more egregious than Reagan’s starring opposite a chimp in Hollywood’s "Bedtime for Bonzo" of 1951. While Trump has owned tacky, bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City, Reagan was a mere casino serf — the emcee of a flop nightclub revue featuring barbershop harmonizing and soft-shoe dancing at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1954. While Trump would be the first president to have been married three times, here, too, he is simply updating his antecedent, who broke a cultural barrier by becoming the first White House occupant to have divorced and remarried. Neither Reagan nor Trump paid any price with the Evangelical right for deviations from the family-values norm; they respectively snared the endorsements of Jerry Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr.

Reflecting the contrasting pop cultures of their times, Reagan’s and Trump’s performance styles are antithetical. Reagan’s cool persona of genial optimism was forged by his stints as a radio baseball broadcaster and a movie-studio utility player, and finally by his emergence on television when it was ruled by the soothing suburban patriarchs of "Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best," and "Leave It to Beaver." Trump’s hot shtick, his scowling bombast and put-downs, is tailor-made for a culture that favors conflict over consensus, musical invective over easy listening, and exhibitionism over decorum in prime time. The two men’s representative celebrity endorsers — Jimmy Stewart and Pat Boone for Reagan, Hulk Hogan and Bobby Knight for Trump — belong to two different American civilizations.

But Reagan’s and Trump’s opposing styles belie their similarities of substance. Both have marketed the same brand of outrage to the same angry segments of the electorate, faced the same jeering press, attracted some of the same battlefront allies (Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Phyllis Schlafly), offended the same elites (including two generations of Bushes), outmaneuvered similar political adversaries, and espoused the same conservative populism built broadly on the pillars of jingoistic nationalism, nostalgia, contempt for Washington, and racial resentment. They’ve even endured the same wisecracks about their unnatural coiffures. “Governor Reagan does not dye his hair,” said Gerald Ford at a Gridiron Dinner in 1974. “He is just turning prematurely orange.” Though Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan (“Let’s Make America Great Again”) is one word longer than Trump’s, that word reflects a contrast in their personalities — the avuncular versus the autocratic — but not in message. Reagan’s apocalyptic theme, “The Empire is in decline,” is interchangeable with Trump’s, even if the Gipper delivered it with a smile.

Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican political consultant and Reagan acolyte, has written authoritative books on the presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980 that serve as correctives to the sentimental revisionist history that would have us believe that Reagan was cheered on as a conquering hero by GOP elites during his long climb to national power. To hear the right’s triumphalism of recent years, you’d think that only smug Democrats were appalled by Reagan while Republicans quickly recognized that their party, decimated by Richard Nixon and Watergate, had found its savior.

Grassroots Republicans, whom Reagan had been courting for years with speeches, radio addresses, and opinion pieces beneath the mainstream media’s radar, were indeed in his camp. But aside from a lone operative (John Sears), Shirley wrote, “the other major GOP players — especially Easterners and moderates — thought Reagan was a certified yahoo.” By his death in 2004, “they would profess their love and devotion to Reagan and claim they were there from the beginning in 1974, which was a load of horse manure.” Even after his election in 1980, Shirley adds, “Reagan was never much loved” by his own party’s leaders. After GOP setbacks in the 1982 midterms, “a Republican National Committee functionary taped a piece of paper to her door announcing the sign-up for the 1984 Bush for President campaign.”

Shirley’s memories are corroborated by reportage contemporaneous with Reagan’s last two presidential runs. (There was also an abortive run in 1968.) A poll in 1976 found that 90 percent of Republican state chairmen judged Reagan guilty of “simplistic approaches,” with “no depth in federal government administration” and “no experience in foreign affairs.” It was little different in January 1980, when a US News and World Report survey of 475 national and state Republican chairmen found they preferred George H.W. Bush to Reagan. One state chairman presumably spoke for many when he told the magazine that Reagan’s intellect was “thinner than spit on a slate rock.” As Rick Perlstein writes in The Invisible Bridge (2014), the third and latest volume of his epic chronicle of the rise of the conservative movement, both Nixon and Ford dismissed Reagan as a lightweight. Barry Goldwater endorsed Ford over Reagan in 1976 despite the fact that Reagan’s legendary speech on behalf of Goldwater’s presidential campaign in October 1964, “A Time for Choosing,” was the biggest boost that his kamikaze candidacy received. Only a single Republican senator, Paul Laxalt of Nevada, signed on to Reagan’s presidential quest from the start, a solitary role that has been played in the Trump campaign by Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

What put off Reagan’s fellow Republicans will sound very familiar. He proposed an economic program — 30 percent tax cuts, increased military spending, a balanced budget — whose math was voodoo and then some. He prided himself on not being “a part of the Washington Establishment” and mocked Capitol Hill’s “buddy system” and its collusion with “the forces that have brought us our problems—the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists, big business, and big labor.” He kept a light campaign schedule, regarded debates as optional, wouldn’t sit still to read briefing books, and often either improvised his speeches or worked off index cards that contained anecdotes and statistics gleaned from Reader’s Digest and the right-wing journal Human Events — sources hardly more elevated or reliable than the television talk shows and tabloids that feed Trump’s erroneous and incendiary pronouncements.

Like Trump but unlike most of his (and Trump’s) political rivals, Reagan was accessible to the press and public. His spontaneity in give-and-takes with reporters and voters played well but also gave him plenty of space to disgorge fantasies and factual errors so prolific and often outrageous that he single-handedly made the word gaffe a permanent fixture in America’s political vernacular. He confused Pakistan with Afghanistan. He claimed that trees contributed 93 percent of the atmosphere’s nitrous oxide and that pollution in America was “substantially under control” even as his hometown of Los Angeles was suffocating in smog. He said that the “finest oil geologists in the world” had found that there were more oil reserves in Alaska than Saudi Arabia. He said the federal government spent $3 for each dollar it distributed in welfare benefits, when the actual amount was 12 cents.

He also mythologized his own personal history in proto-Trump style. As Garry Wills has pointed out, Reagan referred to himself as one of “the soldiers who came back” when speaking plaintively of his return to civilian life after World War II — even though he had come back only from Culver City, where his wartime duty was making Air Force films at the old Hal Roach Studio. Once in office, he told the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had filmed the liberated Nazi death camps, when in reality he had not seen them, let alone (as he claimed) squirreled away a reel of film as an antidote to potential Holocaust deniers. For his part, Trump has purported that his enrollment at the New York Military Academy, a prep school, amounted to Vietnam-era military service, and has borne historical witness to the urban legend of “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Even when these ruses are exposed, Trump follows the Reagan template of doubling down on mistakes rather than conceding them.

Nor was Reagan a consistent conservative. He deviated from party orthodoxy to both the left and the right. He had been by his own account a “near hopeless hemophilic liberal” for much of his adult life, having campaigned for Truman in 1948 and for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her senatorial race against Nixon in California in 1950. He didn’t switch his registration to Republican until he was 51. As California governor, he signed one of America’s strongest gun-control laws and its most liberal abortion law (both in 1967). His vocal opposition helped kill California’s 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have banned openly gay teachers at public schools. As a 1980 presidential candidate, he flip-flopped to endorse bailouts for both New York City and the Chrysler Corporation. Reagan may be revered now as a free-trade absolutist in contrast to Trump, but in that winning campaign he called for halting the “deluge” of Japanese car imports raining down on Detroit. “If Japan keeps on doing everything that it’s doing, what they’re doing, obviously, there’s going to be what you call protectionism,” he said.

Republican leaders blasted Reagan as a trigger-happy warmonger. Much as Trump now threatens to downsize NATO and start a trade war with China, so Reagan attacked Ford, the sitting Republican president he ran against in the 1976 primary, and Henry Kissinger for their pursuit of the bipartisan policies of détente and Chinese engagement. The sole benefit of détente, Reagan said, was to give America “the right to sell Pepsi-Cola in Siberia.” For good measure, he stoked an international dispute by vowing to upend a treaty ceding American control over the Panama Canal. “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it!” he bellowed with an America First truculence reminiscent of Trump’s calls for our allies to foot the bill for American military protection. Even his own party’s hawks, like William F. Buckley Jr. and his pal John Wayne, protested. Goldwater, of all people, inveighed against Reagan’s “gross factual errors” and warned he might “take rash action” and “needlessly lead this country into open military conflict.”

Trump’s signature cause of immigration was not a hot-button issue during Reagan’s campaigns. In the White House, he signed a bill granting “amnesty” (Reagan used the now politically incorrect word) to 1.7 million undocumented immigrants. But if Reagan was free of Trump’s bigoted nativism, he had his own racially tinged strategy for wooing disaffected white working-class Americans fearful that liberals in government were bestowing favors on freeloading, lawbreaking minorities at their expense. Taking a leaf from George Wallace’s populist campaigns, Reagan scapegoated “welfare chiselers” like the nameless “strapping young buck” he claimed used food stamps to buy steak. His favorite villain was a Chicago “welfare queen” who, in his telling, “had 80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security cards, and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexistent deceased husbands” to loot the American taxpayer of over $150,000 of “tax-free cash income” a year. Never mind that she was actually charged with using four aliases and had netted $8,000: Reagan continued to hammer in this hyperbolic parable with a vengeance that rivals Trump’s insistence that Mexico will pay for a wall to fend off Hispanic rapists.

The Republican elites of Reagan’s day were as blindsided by him as their counterparts have been by Trump. Though Reagan came close to toppling the incumbent president at the contested Kansas City convention in 1976, the Ford forces didn’t realize they could lose until the devil was at the door. A “President Ford Committee” campaign statement had maintained that Reagan could “not defeat any candidate the Democrats put up” because his “constituency is much too narrow, even within the Republican party” and because he lacked “the critical national and international experience that President Ford has gained through 25 years of public service.” In Ford’s memoirs, written after he lost the election to Jimmy Carter, he wrote that he hadn’t taken the Reagan threat seriously because he “didn’t take Reagan seriously.” Reagan, he said, had a “penchant for offering simplistic solutions to hideously complex problems” and a stubborn insistence that he was “always right in every argument.” Even so, a Ford-campaign memo had correctly identified one ominous sign during primary season: a rising turnout of Reagan voters who were “not loyal Republicans or Democrats” and were “alienated from both parties because neither takes a sympathetic view toward their issues.” To these voters, the disdain Reagan drew from the GOP elites was a badge of honor. During the primary campaign, Times columnist William Safire reported with astonishment that Kissinger’s speeches championing Ford and attacking Reagan were helping Reagan, not Ford — a precursor of how attacks by Trump’s Establishment adversaries have backfired 40 years later.

Much of the press was slow to catch up, too. A typical liberal-Establishment take on Reagan could be found in Harper’s, which called him Ronald Duck, “the Candidate from Disneyland.” That he had come to be deemed “a serious candidate for president,” the magazine intoned, was “a shame and embarrassment for the country.” But some reporters who tracked Reagan on the campaign trail sensed that many voters didn’t care if he came from Hollywood, if his policies didn’t add up, if his facts were bogus, or if he was condescended to by Republican leaders or pundits. As Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker observed in 1976, his appeal “has to do not with competence at governing but with the emotion he evokes.” As she put it, “Reagan lets people get out their anger and frustration, their feeling of being misunderstood and mishandled by those who have run our government, their impatience with taxes and with the poor and the weak, their impulse to deal with the world’s troublemakers by employing the stratagem of a punch in the nose.”

The power of that appeal was underestimated by his Democratic foes in 1980 even though Carter, too, had run as a populist and attracted some Wallace voters when beating Ford in 1976. By the time he was up for reelection, Carter was an unpopular incumbent presiding over the Iranian hostage crisis, gas shortages, and a reeling economy, yet surely the Democrats would prevail over Ronald Duck anyway. A strategic memo by Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell, laid out the campaign against Reagan’s obvious vulnerabilities with bullet points: “Is Reagan Safe? … Shoots From the Hip … Over His Head … What Are His Solutions?” But it was the strategy of Caddell’s counterpart in the Reagan camp, the pollster Richard Wirthlin, that carried the day with the electorate. Voters wanted to “follow some authority figure,” he theorized — a “leader who can take charge with authority; return a sense of discipline to our government; and, manifest the willpower needed to get this country back on track.” Or at least a leader from outside Washington, like Reagan and now Trump, who projects that image (“You’re fired!”) whether he has the ability to deliver on it or not.

What we call the Reagan Revolution was the second wave of a right-wing populist revolution within the GOP that had first crested with the Goldwater campaign of 1964. After Lyndon Johnson whipped Goldwater in a historic landslide that year, it was assumed that the revolution had been vanquished. The conventional wisdom was framed by James Reston of the Times the morning after Election Day: “Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election yesterday but the conservative cause as well.” But the conservative cause hardly lost a step after Goldwater’s Waterloo; it would soon start to regather its strength out West under Reagan. It’s the moderate wing of the party, the GOP of Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney and Henry Cabot Lodge and William Scranton, that never recovered and whose last, long-smoldering embers were finally extinguished with a Jeb Bush campaign whose high-water mark in the Republican primaries was 11 percent of the vote in New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney and his ilk are far more conservative than that previous generation of ancien régime Republicans. But the Romney crowd is not going to have a restoration after the 2016 election any more than his father’s crowd did post-1964 — regardless of whether Trump is buried in an electoral avalanche, as Goldwater was, or wins big, as Reagan did against both Carter and Walter Mondale. Trump is far more representative of the GOP base than all the Establishment conservatives who are huffing and puffing that he is betraying the conservative movement and the spirit of Ronald Reagan. When the Bush family announces it will skip the Cleveland convention, the mainstream media dutifully report it as significant news. But there’s little evidence that many grassroots Republicans now give a damn what any Bush has to say about Trump or much else.

The only conservative columnist who seems to recognize this reality remains Peggy Noonan, who worked in the Reagan White House. As she pointed out in Wall Street Journal columns this spring, conservatism as “defined the past 15 years by Washington writers and thinkers” (i.e., since George W. Bush’s first inauguration) — “a neoconservative, functionally open borders, slash-the-entitlements party” — appears no longer to have any market in the Republican base. A telling poll [PDF] by Public Policy Polling published in mid-May confirmed that the current GOP Washington leadership is not much more popular than the departed John Boehner and Eric Cantor: Only 40 percent of Republicans approve of the job performance of Paul Ryan, the Establishment wonder boy whose conservative catechism Noonan summarized, while 44 percent disapprove. Only 14 percent of Republicans approve of Mitch McConnell. This is Trump’s party now, and it was so well before he got there. It’s the populist-white-conservative party that Goldwater and Reagan built, with a hefty intervening assist from Nixon’s southern strategy, not the atavistic country-club Republicanism whose few surviving vestiges had their last hurrahs in the administrations of Bush père and fils. The third wave of the Reagan Revolution is here to stay.

Were Trump to gain entry to the White House, it’s impossible to say whether he would or could follow Reagan’s example and function within the political norms of Washington. His burlesque efforts to appear “presidential” are intended to make that case: His constant promise to practice “the art of the deal” echoes Reagan’s campaign boast of having forged compromises with California’s Democratic legislature while governor. More likely a Trump presidency would be the train wreck largely predicted, an amalgam of the blunderbuss shoot-from-the-hip recklessness of George W. Bush and the randy corruption of Warren Harding, both of whom were easily manipulated by their own top brass. The love child of Hitler and Mussolini Trump is not. He lacks the discipline and zeal to be a successful fascist.

The good news for those who look with understandable horror on the prospect of a Trump victory is that the national demographic math is different now from Reagan’s day. The nonwhite electorate, only 12 percent in 1980, was 28 percent in 2012 and could hit 30 percent this year. Few number crunchers buy the Trump camp’s spin that the GOP can reclaim solidly Democratic territory like Pennsylvania and Michigan — states where many white working-class voters, soon to be christened “Reagan Democrats,” crossed over to vote Republican in Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Many of those voters are dead; their epicenter, Macomb County, Michigan, was won by Barack Obama in 2008. Nor is there now the ’70s level of discontent that gave oxygen to Reagan’s insurgency. President Obama’s approval numbers are lapping above 50 percent. Both unemployment and gas prices are low, hardly the dire straits of Carter’s America. Trump’s gift for repelling women would also seem to be an asset for Democrats, creating a gender gap far exceeding the one that confronted Reagan, who was hostile to the Equal Rights Amendment.

And yet, to quote the headline of an Economist cover story on Reagan in 1980: It’s time to think the unthinkable. Trump and Bernie Sanders didn’t surge in a vacuum. This is a volatile nation. Polls consistently find that some two-thirds of the country thinks the country is on the wrong track. The economically squeezed middle class rightly feels it has been abandoned by both parties. The national suicide rate is at a 30-year high. Anything can happen in an election where the presumptive candidates of both parties are loathed by a majority of their fellow Americans, a first in the history of modern polling. It’s not reassuring that some of those minimizing Trump’s chances are the experts who saw no path for Trump to the Republican nomination. There could be a July surprise in which party divisions capsize the Democratic convention rather than, as once expected, the GOP’s. An October surprise could come in the form of a terrorist incident that panics American voters much as the Iranian hostage crisis is thought to have sealed Carter’s doom in 1980.

While I did not rule out the possibility that Trump could win the Republican nomination as his campaign took off after Labor Day last year, I wrote that he had “no chance of ascending to the presidency.” Meanwhile, he was performing an unintended civic service: His bull-in-a-china-shop candidacy was exposing, however unintentionally, the sterility, corruption, and hypocrisy of our politics, from the consultant-and-focus-group-driven caution of candidates like Clinton to the toxic legacy of Sarah Palin on a GOP that now pretends it never invited her cancerous brand of bigoted populism into its midst. But I now realize I was as wrong as the Reagan naysayers in seeing no chance of Trump’s landing in the White House. I will henceforth defer to Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the few Washington analysts who saw Trump’s breakthrough before the pack did. As of early May, he was giving Trump a 20 percent chance of victory in November.

What is to be done to lower those odds further still? Certainly the feeble efforts of the #NeverTrump Republicans continue to be, as Trump would say, Sad! Alumni from the Romney, Bush, and John McCain campaigns seem to think that writing progressively more enraged op-ed pieces about how Trump is a shame and embarrassment for the country will make a difference. David Brooks has called this a “Joe McCarthy moment” for the GOP — in the sense that history will judge poorly those who don’t stand up to the bully in the Fifth Avenue tower. But if you actually look at history, what it says is that there were no repercussions for Republicans who didn’t stand up to McCarthy — or, for that matter, to Nixon at the height of his criminality. William Buckley co-wrote a book defending McCarthy in 1954, and his career only blossomed thereafter. Goldwater was one of McCarthy’s most loyal defenders, and Reagan refused to condemn Nixon even after the Republican senatorial leadership had deserted him in the endgame of Watergate. Far from being shunned, both men ended up as their party’s presidential nominees, and one of them became president.

If today’s outraged Republican elites are seriously determined to derail Trump, they have a choice between two options: (1) Put their money and actions where their hashtags are and get a conservative third-party candidate on any state ballots they can, where a protest vote might have a spoiler effect on Trump’s chances; (2) Hold their nose and support Clinton. Both (1) and (2) would assure a Clinton presidency, so this would require those who feel that Trump will bring about America’s ruin to love their country more than they hate Clinton.

Dream on. That’s not happening. It’s easier to write op-ed pieces invoking Weimar Germany for audiences who already loathe Trump. Meanwhile, Republican grandees will continue to surrender to Trump no matter how much they’ve attacked him or he’s attacked them or how many high-minded editorials accuse them of failing a Joe McCarthy moral test. Just as Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus capitulated once Trump signed a worthless pledge of party loyalty last fall, so other GOP leaders are now citing Trump’s equally worthless list of potential Supreme Court nominees as a pretext for jumping on the bandwagon.

The handiest Reagan-era prototype for Christie, McCain, Nikki Haley, Peter King, Bobby Jindal, and all the other former Trump-haters who have now about-faced is Kissinger. Reagan had attacked him in the 1976 campaign for making America what Trump would call a loser — “No. 2” — to the Soviets in military might. Kissinger’s disdain of Reagan was such that, as Craig Shirley writes, he tried to persuade Ford to run again in 1980 so Reagan could be blocked. When that fizzled, Kissinger put out the word that Reagan was the only Republican contender he wouldn’t work with. But once Reagan had locked up the nomination, Kissinger declared him the “trustee of all our hopes” and lobbied to return to the White House as secretary of State. As I write these words, Kissinger is meeting with Trump.

And the Democrats? Hillary Clinton is to Trump what Carter and especially Mondale were to Reagan: a smart, mainstream liberal with a vast public-service résumé who stands for all good things without ever finding that one big thing that electrifies voters. No matter how many journalistic exposés are to follow on both candidates, it’s hard to believe that most Americans don’t already know which candidate they prefer when the choices are quantities as known as she and Trump. The real question is which one voters are actually going to show up and cast ballots for. Could America’s fading white majority make its last stand in 2016? All demographic and statistical logic says no. But as Reagan seduced voters and confounded the experts with his promise of "Morning in America," we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that Trump might do the same with his stark, black-and-white entreaties to "High Noon." Ω

[Frank Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, writing monthly on politics and culture, and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times, where he had been an op-ed columnist since 1994. He was previously the paper's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993. As a theater critic, he was known as "The Butcher On Broadway." Before joining The Times, Rich was a film critic at Time magazine, the New York Post, and New Times magazine. He was a founding editor of the Richmond (Va.) Mercury, a weekly newspaper, in the early 1970s. Rich is the author of a childhood memoir, Ghost Light (2000), a collection of drama reviews, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson, 1987), and The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006). Rich is a graduate of the Washington, DC public schools. He earned a BA degree in American History and Literature from Harvard College in 1971.]

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Just Wait
By Frank (The Butcher) Rich

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“Let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job,” said Richard Nixon with typical unearned self-righteousness in July 1973. By then, more than a year had passed since a slapstick posse of five had been caught in a bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. It had been nine months since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in the Washington Post that the break-in was part of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” conducted by all the president’s men against most of their political opponents. Now the nation was emerging from two solid months of Senate Watergate hearings, a riveting cavalcade of White House misfits and misdeeds viewed live by 71 percent of the public.

Even so, Nixon had some reason to hope that Americans would heed his admonition to change the channel. That summer, the Times reported that both Democratic and Republican congressmen back home for recess were finding “a certain numbness” about Watergate and no “public mandate for any action as bold as impeachment.”

For all the months of sensational revelations and criminal indictments (including of his campaign manager and former attorney general, John Mitchell), a Harris poll found that only 22 percent thought Nixon should leave office. Gallup put the president’s approval rating in the upper 30s, roughly where our current president stands now — lousy, but not apocalyptic. There had yet to be an impeachment resolution filed in Congress by even Nixon’s most partisan adversaries.

He had defied his political obituaries before, staging comebacks after a slush-fund scandal nearly cost him his vice-presidential perch on the GOP ticket in 1952 and again after his 1962 defeat in the California governor’s race prompted the angry “last press conference” at which he vowed that “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Might Tricky Dick pull off another Houdini? He was capable of it, and, as it happened, it would take another full year of bombshells and firestorms after the televised Senate hearings before a clear majority of Americans (57 percent) finally told pollsters they wanted the president to go home. Only then did he oblige them, in August 1974.

In the decades since, Watergate has become perhaps the most abused term in the American political lexicon. Washington has played host to legions of “-gates,” most unworthy of the name, and the original has blurred in memory, including for those of us who lived through it. Now, of course, invocations of Watergate are our daily bread, as America contemplates the future of a president who not only openly admires Nixon — he vowed to put a framed Nixon note on display in the Oval Office — but seems intent on emulating his most impeachable behavior. And among those of us who want Donald Trump gone from Washington yesterday, there’s a fair amount of fear that he, too, could hang on until the end of a four-year term that stank of corruption from the start. Even if his White House scandals turn out to exceed his predecessor’s — as the former director of national intelligence James Clapper posited in early June — impeachment is a political, not a legal, matter, and his political lock on the presidency would seem secure. Unlike Nixon, who had to contend with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Trump has the shield of a Republican Congress led by craven enablers terrified of crossing their Dear Leader’s fiercely loyal base. That distinction alone is enough to make anti-Trumpers abandon all hope.

I’m here to say don’t do so just yet. There’s a handy antidote to despair: a thorough wallow in Watergate, the actual story as it unfolded, not the expedited highlight reel that most Americans know from a textbook précis or cultural artifacts like the film version of All the President’s Men. If you look through a sharp Nixonian lens at Trump’s trajectory in office to date, short as it has been, you will discover more of an overlap than you might expect. You will learn that Democratic control of Congress in 1973 was not a crucial factor in Nixon’s downfall and that Republican control of Congress in 2017 may not be a life preserver for Trump. You will find reason to hope that the 45th president’s path through scandal may wind up at the same destination as the 37th’s — a premature exit from the White House in disgrace — on a comparable timeline.

The skids of Trump’s collapse are already being greased by some of the same factors that brought down his role model: profound failings of character, disdain for the law (“If the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” in Nixon’s notorious post-resignation formulation to David Frost), an inability to retain the loyalty of feuding White House aides who will lawyer up to save their own skins (H. R. McMaster may bolt faster than the ultimately imprisoned Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman), and dubious physical health (Trump’s body seems to be bloating in stress as Nixon’s phlebitis-stricken leg did). Further down the road, he’ll no doubt face the desertion of politicians in his own party who hope to cling to power after he’s gone. If the good Lordy hears James Comey’s prayers, there may yet be incriminating tapes as well, Trump’s weirdly worded denial notwithstanding.

The American University historian Allan Lichtman, famous for his lonely prediction of Trump’s electoral victory, has followed up that feat with The Case for Impeachment (2017), a book-length forecast of Trump’s doom. The impeachment, he writes, “will be decided not just in the halls of Congress but in the streets of America.” I’d go further to speculate that Trump’s implosion is more likely to occur before there’s an impeachment vote on the floor of the House — as was the case with Nixon. But where Nixon’s exit was catalyzed by an empirical recognition that he’d lost the votes he needed to survive a Senate trial, in Trump’s case the trigger will be his childish temper, not the facts. He’s already on record as finding the job to be more work than he bargained for. He’ll tire of being perceived as a loser by nearly everyone except the sort of people he’d never let in the front door of Mar-a-Lago — and of seeing the Trump brand trashed to the point of jeopardizing his children’s future stake in the family kleptocracy. When he’s had enough, I suspect he’ll find a way to declare “victory,” blame his departure on a conspiracy by America’s (i.e., his) “enemies,” and vow to fight another day on a network TBA.

But as was also true with Nixon, some time and much patience will be required while waiting for the endgame. The span between Nixon’s Second Inaugural and his resignation was almost 19 months. Trump’s presidency already seems as if it’s lasted a lifetime, but it’s only five months old. Never forget that the Watergate auto-da-fé wasn’t built in a day.

For those who haven’t refreshed their Watergate memories lately — or only vaguely know the history to start with — there’s a vast trove of entertaining Nixon literature worth taking to the beach, from Woodward and Bernstein’s classic The Final Days (1976, 2005), featuring a sobbing Nixon and Henry Kissinger dropping to their knees in prayer, to the recent tell-all by one of Nixon’s last White House loyalists, Pat Buchanan (Nixon’s White House Wars [2017]). To understand how the melodrama played out in real time in the capital, there may be no better guide than Washington Journal (2014), the collected 1973–74 dispatches of Elizabeth Drew, The New Yorker’s Washington columnist at the time. (Drew is on the DC Trump beat now for The New York Review of Books.) This book had long been out of print, but, as luck would have it, its republication in 2014, to mark the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, proved more timely than anyone except perhaps Allan Lichtman could have predicted.

Here’s Drew describing a typical Watergate day:

“The news is coming too fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected. It is almost impossible to absorb.” And here she is a week after Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned upon pleading no contest to charges of bribery and tax fraud: “The city seems to be reeling around amidst the events and the breaking stories. In the restaurants, the noise level is higher. At the end of the day, someone says, ‘It’s like being drunk.’ ”

It already feels like that right now.

One could argue that the context is different today — that the America of 2017 is not the America of the early 1970s. We think of our current culture as being harder to shock, easier to distract, and more inured to crude public figures who violate traditional societal norms as unabashedly as Trump. This, in theory, would make him harder to dislodge than Nixon, whose sins would more easily scandalize a relatively innocent 20th-century citizenry. But even without the internet’s cacophony, Nixon faced a post-1960s America as factionalized, jaded, and accustomed to shock as our own: It had witnessed the assassination of two Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a complete overhaul of its mores as a consequence of a rising counterculture and women’s movement, and a domestic civil war precipitated by the catastrophe of Vietnam. The alarming toxicity of Trump has burst through the noise of our America much as Nixon’s did through his. And while the technology for delivering news makes it come faster and harder in 2017 than Drew or any of us could have anticipated in that day of daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts, the onslaught of shocking developments felt no less overwhelming then than now.

Human nature hasn’t changed — not for those of us standing outside a teetering White House or for the cast of characters within. Much as Trump risked his presidency by empowering hotheaded ideologues like Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, so Nixon’s White House had recruited the similarly reckless G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to wage war on the president’s perceived enemies. As John A. Farrell writes in his new, state-of-the-art Richard Nixon: The Life (2017), both of them were “wannabe James Bonds.” Hunt, an alumnus of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, was the prolific author of often pseudonymous spy novels, while Liddy was alt-right before it was cool: “a right-wing zealot, with a fixation for Nazi regalia and a kinky kind of Nietzschean philosophy,” who “organized a White House screening of the Nazi propaganda film 'Triumph of the Will.' ”

Though there are a number of areas where the Nixon and Trump narratives diverge, in nearly every case Trump’s deviations from the Watergate model make it even less likely that he will survive his presidency. (One exception to the rule: Nixon drank to excess; Trump is a teetotaler.) Nixon was genuinely tough, a self-made man who’d climbed out of what may have been the most Dickensian childhood of any American president. He’d served as a Navy officer in the Pacific theater during World War II. He entered the White House at a younger age than Trump — 56, not 70 — hardened by decades of political combat as a savage knife-fighter during the McCarthy witch hunts and the explosive American divisions of the 1960s. Nixon actually knew American history, read books, and, unencumbered by ADD, played the long game in life (his courtship of his wife, Pat) as well as in politics. He was a lawyer who repeatedly (and presciently) advised his staff that the cover-up, not the crime, posed the greater legal threat, a lesson he had learned during his star-making turn on the House Un-American Activities Committee; his prey, the State Department official Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjury, not for being a Soviet spy. Nixon was also a far more strategic liar than Trump, crafting sanctimonious and legalistic falsehoods to paper over wrongdoing rather than spewing self-incriminating lies indiscriminately about everything.

Nixon knew how to pull the levers of government and pile up achievements, variously admirable and horrid, especially in foreign policy (opening up China, the secret carpet bombing and invasion of Cambodia) but also on the domestic front (embracing the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, impounding billions of dollars appropriated to enforce the Clean Air Act). His active governance was a more effective tool in distracting the public from White House scandals than Trump’s tediously serial signing of executive orders. Nixon not only took an elaborately theatrical trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel to try to drown out ominous headlines (Trump’s recent trip barely departed from the Nixon playbook) but also became the first American president to visit Moscow, in the substantive cause of furthering détente and negotiating historic arms agreements.

Nixon’s most empowering asset in deflecting Watergate was one Trump can only fantasize about (and clearly does): the size of his election victory. Nixon defeated George McGovern by 18 million votes (still a record) and carried all but a single state in the Electoral College (then a record, matched since by Ronald Reagan in 1984), allowing him to arrive at his second Inaugural with the political capital of a 68 percent approval rating. Nixon also was blessed by a Democratic opposition even more splintered and hapless than that facing Trump in 2017. Its majorities in Congress were managed by a Speaker, Carl Albert, and a Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, who were weak beer next to the powerhouses who bracketed them. (Albert would be succeeded by Tip O’Neill in 1977; Mansfield’s predecessor had been LBJ.) The two presidential tickets that Nixon had vanquished were both trainwrecks, the defective products of the party’s post–JFK-LBJ civil war.

The underside of Nixon’s character, which would eviscerate his virtues and advantages, was very Trumpian. His flaws led to both the creation of the Watergate scandal and the commission of the political and legal mistakes that would entomb him within it. No matter what success he achieved, as Drew wrote, Nixon “never lost his resentments” or “his desire for revenge.” Success also failed to tame his kleptomaniacal tendencies; he was caught using government funds to pay for luxurious improvements to his private residences in Key Biscayne, Florida, and San Clemente, California, and manipulating his tax bill to near zero even as he became a millionaire in office. (Like Trump, he gave virtually nothing to charity.) Devoted to his adult daughters but distant from his wife during his White House years (at times literally so in their living arrangements), Nixon had but one close friend, the Florida businessman Bebe Rebozo. He ridiculed those running government agencies and contemplated curbing the tenure of federal judges. “His attitude was that the only bright, really intelligent fellow in town was himself,” said the CIA chief Richard Helms. Prone to temper tantrums, he ended up with an ever-shrinking Oval Office inner circle restricted to fearful yes-men. As Drew concluded, “There was no one to challenge his assumptions, to set him straight in his confusion of political opponents with enemies. He didn’t recognize boundaries. He never learned to observe limits — anything went — and one thing led to another until he was in too deep to extricate himself.”

The genesis of Watergate was Nixon’s desire to sabotage the opposition in the 1972 presidential race at a time when he thought Edmund Muskie, Teddy Kennedy, and George Wallace all posed serious threats to his reelection prospects. It was left to underlings to dream up the various dirty tricks, including the ill-fated efforts to tap phones and steal files at the Democratic National Committee’s office. While we don’t know yet the extent to which Trump or those around him collaborated or colluded with the Russians (and WikiLeaks) in the subterfuge that roiled the 2016 election, the motive, the means, and the goal were roughly the same as Nixon’s: to sabotage the Democrats by stealing the internal communications (emails in lieu of files) of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC. (One should note that Nixon and Trump were both beneficiaries of dirty tricks hatched by Roger Ailes and Roger Stone.) In a move that would have floored Nixon, Trump was stupid enough to publicly ask Russia to hack Clinton on his behalf. If it turns out that Trump’s campaign did collude with a foreign adversary to undermine the election — whether through hacking or other means — Clapper and others who judge Trump’s potential crimes as worse than Watergate will be easily vindicated.

Even as the jury remains out on that question, Trump is clumsily mimicking Nixon in orchestrating what looks like a cover-up. He persisted in flattering the jettisoned Flynn, who surely has stories to tell prosecutors in exchange for immunity, much as Nixon made sure to praise his intimates Haldeman and John Ehrlichman as “two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know” when he sent them packing. But Trump failed to heed a bigger lesson he might have drawn from Watergate history: Don’t antagonize the FBI and CIA. Trump started insulting both agencies even before he took office. He apparently was unaware that Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat was a Comey of their day — the FBI’s No. 2, the associate director Mark Felt. If Trump knew history, he also would have known that it was a self-impaling blunder to try to enlist the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the NSA director, Mike Rogers, to intervene in an investigation on his behalf. Nixon attempted the same by leaning on Vernon Walters, a loyalist he’d promoted to be deputy director of the CIA. But as John Farrell writes, “Walters’s knowledge and experience” of both Nixon and Washington prompted him to write “self-protective memos (‘Notes to refresh my memory, if I should need it,’ Walters called them) when the White House ordered him to impede the FBI’s investigation.” The memos found their way to the New York Times.

Another counterproductive Watergate defense strategy that Trump emulates is Nixon’s obsessive effort to counteract the daily leaks by trying to discredit the press that reported on them. “Never forget, the press is the enemy,” Nixon told his aides, instructing them to “write that on the blackboard a hundred times.” His notorious communications strategy — led by Ron Ziegler, a former tour guide on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” ride — is the template for the Trump White House’s denials: an ad hominem attack on the offending news organization coupled with false claims of exoneration and false charges that the press was ignoring the opposition’s wrongdoing. Here is the Nixon campaign manager Clark MacGregor’s statement responding to a relatively early Washington Post investigative report after the break-in: “Using innuendo, third-person hearsay, unsubstantiated charges, anonymous sources, and huge scare headlines, the Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate, a charge the Post knows — and a half-dozen investigations have found — to be false.” MacGregor went on to complain about how Democratic “disruptions of the president’s campaign” were “buried deep inside the paper.” The Post’s motive, he asserted, was “to divert public and national attention away from the real issues of this campaign — peace, jobs, foreign policy, welfare, taxes, defense, and national priorities — and onto phony issues manufactured” by the Post and the McGovern camp. Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway should be embarrassed that they lack the creativity to improve on spin devised nearly a half-century ago.

Nixon’s flunkies, like Trump’s, wielded intimidation along with bluster against the press. The White House tried to challenge the licenses of Florida television stations owned by the Washington Post and was successful in browbeating William Paley, the head of CBS, to truncate a Walter Cronkite special report on Watergate. At the same time that the Nixon administration was trying to hobble what was then derided by conservatives as “the eastern media conspiracy,” it basked in the alternative facts spread by the Limbaughs, Drudges, and Breitbarts of its day — right-wing radio stars like Clarence Manion and Paul Harvey and their print adjuncts. In the judgment of the weekly publication Human Events, the supposed White House scandals were nothing more than a manufactured Democratic plot, a “legal Putsch” to “countermand the 1972 election results and install a Democrat in the White House.” Or, as the truculent White House spokesman Ken Clawson called it, a “witch hunt” by “people who were completely rejected at the polls” and were “trying to bring down this presidency.”

The constituency for press-bashing and alternative-right-wing media was the populist base that Nixon considered his ultimate insurance policy against being driven from office — not just Republicans but former George Wallace voters, those disaffected southern white and northern blue-collar Democrats who resented both the antiwar cultural left and blacks empowered by new civil-rights laws. Nixon christened this base “the silent majority,” a retro designation Trump has adopted, and pandered to it by railing against the Establishment, demagoguing what he saw as a national breakdown in “law and order,” and choosing, in Agnew, a vice-president whose only talent was for vilifying the press and black civil-rights advocates. Nixon, too, would seek solace among this faithful at proto–“Make America Great Again” rallies. As he arrived in Nashville for the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry theater, the president was serenaded in a National Guard hangar by a flag-waving crowd singing special lyrics (“Stand up and cheer for Richard Nixon”) to the tune of “Okie From Muskogee.”

In the end, none of this was to any avail. For all the cover-ups, the efforts to stifle the press, and the stoking of his pugilistic base, Nixon failed to save himself. That his demise was not primarily a consequence of the Democrats’ control of Congress is due to the fact that some of his most reliable and powerful allies in both chambers were Democrats. Even as Nixon’s race-baiting “southern strategy” was hastening the realignment of the GOP as a new home for conservative southern Democrats (like the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who had defected to the Republicans in 1964), most in Congress had yet to transition, as typified by the segregationist Mississippi senators James Eastland and John Stennis, both Democrats and firm Nixon supporters. Even Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who presided over the 1973 Watergate hearings, was a segregationist and Vietnam War hawk who, as the historian Rick Perlstein has pointed out, was “one of the most loyal votes for Nixon in the Senate” and had initially declared that it was “simply inconceivable that Nixon might have been involved” in the White House horrors.

A related misperception that some present-day liberals tend to retrofit to 1973 has it that the Washington Republican leadership of that time included ballsy, principled moderates who would speak truth to their gangster president as the pathetic Trump lackeys Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will not. If only. A few Republican senators did ask tough questions during the Watergate hearings — Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker, famously — but it took even them a year after the Watergate break-in to find their voices, and they were not in the leadership. Then, as now, so-called Establishment Republicans were more likely to gripe about Nixon in private or in not-for-attribution conversations with reporters. In public, they usually cowered, sparing the president their harshest criticism and cordoning him off from impeachable offenses out of fear of him and his base. The Republican minority leader in the House, the Arizona congressman John Rhodes, found his mail running three to one against Nixon until he talked about a possible presidential resignation; then the count flipped to eight to one in Nixon’s favor.

It was not until three months before Nixon did quit that a trio of Republican senators — all up for election that fall — called for him either to resign or step aside temporarily under the 25th Amendment. More typical were towers of Jell-O like the secretary of the Interior, Rogers Morton, a former Maryland congressman and chairman of the Republican National Committee. In that same month, May 1974, he told the Times he was having “a very difficult time in living with” what he called “a breakdown in our ethics of government” — only to pop up in the Post 24 hours later saying that he was “not going to jump off the ship until there’s evidence that the ship is sinking.” (And he still held on tight, surviving in the Cabinet after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency.)

Nor did Nixon’s base ever desert him. At the nadir of Watergate, Nixon’s approval rating fell to 27 percent; by the time he resigned, that number had dropped to 24 percent. In other words, at least a quarter of the American populace had no problem telling pollsters that they were still behind a president who had lied repeatedly and engaged in unambiguously criminal conspiracies. They still saw Nixon as “one of us,” as he billed himself on posters in his first House run in 1946, and as a fighter who took on “them” — essentially the same elites that Trump inveighs against today.

Trump’s base is roughly the same size as Nixon’s then, or only a shade less. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver quantifies that base as voters who “strongly approve” of Trump, a figure that peaked at 30 after the Inaugural and had dropped to 21 to 22 percent by late May. They will no more abandon Trump than their parents and grandparents did Nixon. If anything, Trump’s ascent has once more confirmed that this constituency is a permanent factor in the American political equation. Should Trump follow Nixon into ignominy, that base may in time rally around a more cunning and durable Trump — a new Nixon, if you will. He will be far scarier than an understudy like Pence, who is unlikely to survive his association with a tainted president any longer than Ford did (if even that long). Future Democrats may be just as ineffectual at stopping the next right-wing populist before he (or she) lands in the White House, but that’s a depression for another day.

What finally did in Nixon — besides himself — is what will do in Trump: not the Democrats, or a turncoat base, or brave GOP leaders. “Historians have written that Nixon was persuaded to resign after the arrival at the White House on Wednesday, August 7, of a delegation from the Hill — Senator Barry Goldwater, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, and House Minority Leader John Rhodes — to tell him he must go,” writes Pat Buchanan in his memoir. “This is myth.” Nixon’s collapse was well under way by then, from the ground up. With the midterms growing ever nearer, garden-variety GOP officeholders, most of them as cowardly as today’s, started to flee. The House Judiciary Committee voted on an article of impeachment on July 27, three days after a unanimous 8-0 Supreme Court, including three Nixon appointees, ruled that the president would have to turn over the White House tapes. Even then there was wavering. The ten Republicans who voted “No” on all the impeachment articles in committee would switch their votes only after the August 5 release of the “smoking gun” (a new coinage then) — the transcript of a June 23, 1972, tape showing that Nixon had ordered the facts of the Watergate break-in to be covered up six days after it happened despite his repeated public protestations otherwise. One congressman who didn’t bolt even then, Earl Landgrebe, regarded such revelations as fake news (“Don’t confuse me with the facts”), telling the "Today" show hours before Nixon resigned that he was “sticking with my president even if he and I have to be carried out of this building and shot.” Landgrebe hailed from Indiana’s Second Congressional District, which decades later would send Mike Pence to the House.

As Buchanan and Nixon’s speechwriter Raymond Price (in his 1977 memoir, With Nixon) attested, the president’s resignation speech was already in hand by the time Goldwater & Co. visited the White House on August 7. Rather than the importuning of noble Republican elders, it was the stampede of defections that followed the revelation of the smoking gun that finally convinced him he could not numerically survive a trial in the Senate. By then, it was too late for some of his congressional backers to leap into the lifeboats. On Election Day that November, the GOP would lose four seats in the Senate and 49 in the House. Typical of the losers was Charles Sandman Jr., from New Jersey’s still solidly red second district, which in 2016 voted for Trump over Clinton by a margin of five percentage points. In 1972, Sandman had beaten his Democratic opponent by 23 percentage points; in 1974, after remaining a loyal anti-impeachment advocate until the final week of Nixon’s presidency, he lost by 16 points.

It’s always possible that there’s only smoke, no fire, and Trump will yet save himself, his party, and his country. Perhaps he won’t fire Robert Mueller. Perhaps Mueller will determine that Trump is not guilty of collusion with the Russians (with Trump’s voluntarily released tax returns as confirming evidence) or of obstruction of justice. Perhaps he will uncover no untoward financial dealings or subversive collaborations with the Kremlin and its network by any of the president’s men. Perhaps the courts will find Trump not guilty of violating the “emoluments clause” that restricts a president from profiting from office. (This last was debated as a possible article of impeachment for Nixon.) Perhaps Trump will stay out of trouble, stay off Twitter, miraculously avoid perjury, brilliantly staff up the executive branch, and deliver fabulously on his promises to secure cheap health care for all Americans, cut everyone’s taxes, and rebuild America’s infrastructure. Perhaps Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East and reinvent American government rather than follow his father to prison.

What’s more likely is that the Trump administration will continue to mirror Garry Wills’s description of Nixon’s: “a world of little men using large powers incompetently from a combination of suspicion and panic.” The little men will continue to drive the country into a ditch. And GOP leaders will look the other way right up to that moment when Republicans in the 60 to 80 districts (according to FiveThirtyEight) more competitive than those in last week’s special elections figure out that they may have to choose between the minority of voters who are Trump’s irreducible base and a larger group, including Independents, who will determine whether they keep their jobs.

Between now and then, there will be lulls in the downward trajectory — after Nixon hit a new low of a 27 percent approval rating in November 1973, he spiked to 37 in a Harris poll a month later — and many shocks and surprises. In the 13 months that fell between our comparable point in the electoral cycle — the Fourth of July, 1973, when Nixon was still safely riding out the storm — and his resignation in August 1974, as the midterms loomed, the following happened: He was hospitalized with pneumonia; the White House taping system was revealed, and Nixon refused to release the tapes; a first impeachment resolution was introduced in the House by a liberal antiwar Massachusetts Democrat widely dismissed as an outlier; Agnew resigned; a special election to fill the House seat of Agnew’s successor, Ford, yielded a Democrat in what had been a safe Republican district; Nixon fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and abolished his office, forcing out both the attorney general and deputy attorney general in the “Saturday Night Massacre”; a crucial White House tape was revealed to have an unexplained 18-and-a-half-minute “gap”; seven former administration officials were indicted by a grand jury; and the president appeared at a press event at Disney World where he declared, “I am not a crook.”

Looking back on it all, Elizabeth Drew would write, “In retrospect, the denouement appeared inevitable — but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time.” That’s how I remember it. Certainly such a denouement for Trump doesn’t feel inevitable now. But whatever the end proves to be, we cannot expect to have a real inkling until an impending election starts concentrating Republican politicians’ minds next summer. The best thing to do in the meantime is to keep calm, carry on with the resistance, and rest assured that the day is coming when we won’t have Trump to kick around anymore. # # #

[Frank Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as Writer-at-Large, writing monthly on politics and culture, and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. Rich joined the magazine following a distinguished career at the New York Times, where he had been an op-ed columnist since 1994. He was previously the paper's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993. As a theater critic, he was known as "The Butcher On Broadway." Before joining The Times, Rich was a film critic at Time magazine, the New York Post, and New Times magazine. He was a founding editor of the Richmond (Va.) Mercury, a weekly newspaper, in the early 1970s. Rich is the author of a childhood memoir, Ghost Light (2000), a collection of drama reviews, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson, 1987), and The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006). Rich is a graduate of the Washington, DC public schools. He earned a BA (history and literature) from Harvard College.]

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